Tuesday, May 26, 2015

“Tante veritá e bugie”: the mysterious affairs of Zeno Cosini

Italo Svevo
by Olga Lenczewska



Zeno Cosini, the main protagonist of Italo Svevo’s novel La coscienza de Zeno, is perhaps one of the most amusing and complex literary characters in modern Italian literature. Whilst telling his story in the first person in a form of a autobiography, as ordered by his psychoanalytic doctor, he manipulates the facts and lies to the reader – or maybe he is not sure himself what happened in reality and what happened in his head. Zeno is the first literary example of Freud’s psychoanalysis, which Svevo was influenced by – yet after having read the novel, one is not sure if psychoanalytic treatment really works.

Already in the opening chapter, Prefazione, written by the psychoanalytist who treated Zenos, the reader is warned about the unreliability of the following Zeno's account of his life. The doctor refers to Zeno's autobiography as a collection of “tante veritá e bugie”, not providing moreover a means of distinguishing between the truths and the lies: “Se [Zeno] sapesse quante sorprese potrebbero risultargli dal commento delle tante veritá e bugie ch'egli ha qui accumulate!”.

Zeno's way of viewing the world results in his alienation from the reality. Every decision he makes is not entirely “his own” but made in order to please somebody else or to falsely appear as a certain personality. This is strengthened when Zeno often visits the Malfenti family. He feels foreign and maladjusted to it, and therefore does or says things he normally would not do or say. As comments a literary critic Vittorini, “Zeno si presenta come lo straniero (xénos) che viene ammesso nel microcosmo del salotto dei Malfenti (un “paese del tutto sconosciuto”)” [Vittorini 2003: 72]. By achieving partial detachment from the society Zeno hopes to escape the social determinism. Yet he does not escape the social determinism but rather follows its norms without consciously deciding to do so or applying a special meaning to them (as for example in the case of the proposal to Augusta). He mimics the behaviours of the others and repeats the schemes of the society: marriage, commerce, family, and death, which are not simply chapters of a book but a thematic autonomy that represents the norms of the society to which Zeno conforms.

I will focus on portraying the protagonist's undecidedness and maladjustment to the society by analysing the reasons for his decision to marry Augusta Malfenti and the general story told in the chapter La storia del mio matrimonio. At the beginning of La storia del mio matrimonio Zeno confesses that “puó perció essere che l'idea di sposarmi mi sia venuta per la stanchezza di emettere e sentire quell'unica nota”. This is clearly not a common reason for wanting to get married, especially as Zeno decides to do so not because of having found the love of his life, but through analysis of the very concept of being a husband. The social normativity and the things that are regarded as “typical”, such as getting married, begin to dominate his own free will and the ability to make responsible decisions based on his own, individual needs. Zeno chose (or was driven into) proposing to one of the Malfenti daughters. This was perhaps the effect of the close bond he had with Giovanni Malfenti. It can be said that the paternal affect of Malfenti which was reciprocated by Zeno was the cause of him wanting to marry one of Malfenti's daughters. He did not so much choose one of them for her own qualities, as for the perspective of having Malfenti as his father-in-law.

Zeno decides to propose to Ada, a woman he truly admires and perhaps is in love with. Yet when she rejects him, he immediately goes on to propose to Alberta and Augusta almost in one go. This grotesque situation – proposing to three sisters at the same evening – is quite amusing to the reader but at the same time reflects a serious problem of Zeno's: the inability to feel something deeply, to be hurt by the rejection of the beloved one, to stop himself from acting without thinking it through first. The act of proposing loses his meaning, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that gains a different one: that of being an element of the social game, of conforming to the norms. In effect, Zeno becomes Augusta's husband without wanting to or loving her. The choice of Augusta, the least appealing of the Malfenti sisters, is portrayed as random and absolutely unpredicted.

Once married, Zeno comes to realise he loves his wife. What he admires in her is the stability of her life and the order she imposes on things. Augusta truly loves Zeno, too, and brings to his life comfort and order; she consoles and absolves him. She is a mother-figure in the book, not only to their children but also to Zeno himself, and in fact she reminds Zeno of his mother. He finds in her something totally opposite to his own character. Augusta has an opposite view on the truth to Zeno. Whilst for the protagonist the semantic meaning of the words alternates from one situation and social context to another, and the truth is often not what actually happened but what Zeno wishes had happened, Augusta is far away from Zeno's truth relativism: “Da ogni sua parola, da ogni suo atto risultava che in fondo essa credeva la vita eterna. Non che la dicesse tale: si sorprese anzi che una volta io, cui gli errori ripugnavano prima che non avessi amati i suoi, avessi sentito il bisogno di ricordargliene la brevitá. Macché! Essa sapeva che tutti dovevano morire, ma ció non toglieva che ormai ch'eravamo sposati, si sarebbe rimasti insieme, insieme”. Moreover, she lives in the tangible reality and controls the present issues whilst Zeno tends to be absent-minded and the major part of his life is happening inside him, in his reflections and analysis, what is reflected by both the novel's title and the dominance of descriptions of his thoughts over dialogues. As a result of this, Zeno and Augusta have two opposite views of the world. Neither changes the other's view. There is a huge distance between the “A” of the Malfenti daughters and the “Z” of Zeno; it represents a distance from the beginning to the end, from a word to a life. Zeno is detached from the reality and lives in his own world of illusion and projection that is more familiar to him than the reality; he views everything that happens through the lens of his desires and wishes.

When Zeno he decides not to tell Carla, his lover, that he actually loves his wife (she thinks he does not), he tries to justify it by saying that in fact he is not sure whether he loves Augusta or not, and that none of the moments he spends with Carla is appropriate to reveal the truth. Similarly, during his affair with Carla he admits that he has more excuses to innocently visit her than needed, admitting thus that the official reasons are just excuses to make love to her, whereas after having ended the relationship he presents himself as a passive victim of circumstances and Carla's seduction, saying that the love for music was the primary rational motive for the many visits he paid her.

In sum, Svevo's La coscienza de Zeno describes a few episodes from the life of a character who is a literary representation of the first generation of people suffering from an existential condition called “life”. He analyses the reality rather than simply lives it, and, consequently, the life he leads conforms more to his own alternations and projections of the reality than the authentic, “objective” world. Thus he is maladjusted to the society he is supposed to function in and every decision he makes is not truly his own, but a means of conforming to the society's norms. The most prominent example of such an act is, as I tried to show, his decision to propose to and marry Augusta, the least appealing of the Malfenti daughters. Zeno is, moreover, unable to face the consequences of his previous decisions (he, for example, repeatedly cheats on his wife) and lies to himself about the morality of his actions.

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Fate in the works of Giovanni Verga

Giovanni Verga
by Olga Lenczewska



Fate, a notion largely explored and realised in art, philosophy, and literature from ancient times until the present day, can be generally defined as a condition predetermined by a Divine being or nature, invincible necessity, a power which projects one's future. As opposed to the notion of planning which involves an agent organising his own future, fate is supposed to be both independent of one's will, and necessary in its occurrence. In Giovanni Verga's works, however, this notion is substantially challenged and adapted to the society and times he depicts – let us take a close look at that.

Verga, born to a rich Sicilian family during the times of the island's poverty and Italy's social underdevelopment, was inspired by the French naturalism to think of the role of literature as that of portraying the reality as it really was. His particular focus in his mature works such as “I Malavoglia” and “Vita dei campi”, however, was not the “gran mondo” with which the French movement and Alessandro Manzoni dealt, but the “classi inferiori” of the southern Italian villages that, Verga claimed, suffered the most from the difficult economic situation; in the opening story from “Vita dei campi” entitled “Fantasticheria” he clearly presents his ideology: “per poter comprendere siffatta caparbietá, che é per certi aspetti eroica, bisogna farci piccini anche noi, chiudere tutto l'orizzonte fra due zolle, e guardare col microscopo le piccole cause che fanno battere i piccoli cuori”.

Verga’s interpretation of the notion of fate is clearly visible in his portrayal of a boy nicknamed Rosso malpelo, a protagonist of one of the short stories from “Vita dei campi”. The boy was called Rosso malpelo because, according to the villagers, ginger hair was an attribute of malicious people. The reasoning of the peasants may be evidenced by the use of a causal “perché” in the following statement: “aveva i capelli rossi perché era un ragazzo malizioso e cattivo, che prometteva di riescire un fior di birbone”. From a commonsensical point of view the prejudicial assumption of the peasants seem absurd and it is rather them who 'create' the boy's destiny than himself. Moreover, it is not only the boy's hair colour, but also the popular opinion concerning his father, that contributed to Rosso malpelo's bad fame: the boy 'inherited' the bad fame from his father who, also unjustifiably, was negatively perceived by the society which would judge his stubbornness and hard-working manners as arrogance and selfishness. When the father died during work only he was brave to do, the fellow workers judge Rosso malpelo's mourning as a nasty, arrogant, even animalistic behaviour. A number of animalistic comparisons appear also in other parts of the story, for example, when the reader finds out that even the boy's mother believed he was a malicious just because people were saying so, putting the opinion of others over the bond of family: “La vedova di mastro Misciu era disperata di aver per figlio quel malarnese, come dicevano tutti, ed egli era ridotto veramente come quei cani, che a furia di buscarsi dei calce e delle sassate da questo e da quello, finiscono col mettersi la coda fra le gambe e scappare alla prima anima viva che vedono, e diventano affamati, spelati e selvatici come lupi”. Even more tragically, the boy seemed to be aware of his situation in the village and surrounding him injustice, but unable to free himself from it, accepting is and taking for granted instead: “Mio padre era buono, e non faceva male a nessuno, tanto che lo chiamavano Bestia. Invece è là sotto, ed hanno persino trovato i ferri, le scarpe e questi calzoni qui che ho indosso io”. It becomes clear that it were the villagers' prejudicial opinions, not some higher power, that projected and directed Rosso malpelo's fate.

Moreover, the boy felt obliged to work were his father used to, even though he died there and the place was not only extremely dangerous, but constantly reminded Rosso malpelo of the tragedy. Despite his unwillingness to do so, the boy believed he was born into working at his father's trade: “Certamente egli avrebbe preferito di fare il manovale, come Ranocchio, e lavorare cantando sui ponti, in alto, in mezzo all'azzurro del cielo, col sole sulla schiena, - o il carrettiere, come compare Gaspare, che veniva a prendersi la rena della cava, dondolandosi sonnacchioso sulle stanghe, colla pipa in bocca, e andava tutto il giorno per le belle strade di campagna (…). Ma quello era stato il mestiere di suo padre, e in quel mestiere era nato lui”. Also the job itself seemed to be linked to fatal fate. The ultimate tragism of the injudicious opinion shared by the society the boy lived in is represented and particularly stressed at the very last sentence of “Rosso malpelo”, when the boy goes away, convinced that nobody will look for him anyway: “Così si persero persin le ossa di Malpelo, e i ragazzi della cava abbassano la voce quando parlano di lui nel sotterraneo, ché hanno paura di vederselo comparire dinanzi, coi capelli rossi e gli occhiacci grigi”. The public fear of Rosso malpelo remained even after he had left his home and went missing.

In sum, the short story “Rosso malpelo” from “Vita dei campi” presents the fate of the protagonist as being in hands of the society he lives in that shared injudicious prejudices based on his physical appearance and his mourning after the death of his father; a negative social opinion greatly influences his and his family's life. Moreover, despite not willing to work where his father did, the boy believed he was born into continuing his father's trade and did not see any other possibility, thus being unable to free himself from his family's 'heritage'. The notion of fate in “Vita dei campi” is based on, or mainly expressed by, the social beliefs and opinions shared by the locals of the villages the plots are set in. Finally, the notion of fate in Verga's works directs the protagonists' lives from the 'bottom' – by the society, fellow locals – rather than from the 'top' – by some kind of Divine and omnipotent power, even if the protagonists themselves do not realise this and attribute this force to God. This might be due to the fact that for the protagonists do not want to accept they are controlled by their society's values and other people rather than by God, as they would not be able to explain and accept their course of life otherwise. Such definition of fate as coming from the 'bottom' is very different from its original definition from ancient times of the Greek tragedy. Thus it can be questioned that the force that controls Verga's protagonists cannot really be called fate. Obviously it depends how liberally we treat the definition of fate, but in my opinion it cannot be; I would rather call it 'social inescapableness', which transform the notion of 'fate' into a power that does not bear the notion of a Divine being projecting one's life.


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